Germany is ripe for far-right conspiracy movements, including QAnon

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It’s not just QAnon: Why Germany is a hotbed for far-right conspiracy movements

Germany, like the United States, has a problem with conspiracy ideologies — and the country has been battling a threat that’s much broader, and more entrenched, than QAnon alone.

The American-born mythology stood out when German authorities detained 25 people, thought to be far-right conspiracy theorists plotting to overthrow the government, earlier this month. But it’s not just QAnon. The recent far-right plot shows it’s far from the only conspiracy narrative to drive increasing radicalization here. What QAnon has done, as a sort of umbrella conspiracy ideology, is what it has the potential to do elsewhere around the world: merge with, and help tap into, a deep vein of nation-specific conspiracies that existed long before QAnon arrived.

The ones in the spotlight in Germany these days are the “Reichsbürger,” or “citizens of the Reich,” who believe the current German government is not a sovereign state, but a construct set up by Allied powers at the end of World War II. Some leaders of the newly uncovered terrorist group had long been involved in Reichsbürger circles, and the German government estimates there are 21,000 people believed to be members nationwide.

Two-and-a-half years of protests across the country, which began as demonstrations against government-mandated pandemic restrictions and have since shifted to high inflation and energy prices, brought these conspiracy supporters together and gave their various narratives space to interact and merge. There, Reichsbürger and QAnon adherents shared protest space with a range of other conspiracy-minded people, including New Age adherents, skeptics of vaccines and traditional medicine, and far- and extreme-right activists. The result has been something new and, at least in its details, uniquely German.

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“In this terrorist group, you have the clear neo-Nazi narratives, the so-called ‘Reichsbürger’ or sovereign citizens’ narrative, QAnon, and also New Age stuff,” said Pia Lamberty, co-founder of CeMAS, a Berlin-based organization that tracks disinformation and conspiracy narratives. “In the pandemic, conspiracy theories got more space to grow.”

During pandemic-related protests, she added, “you’ve had different groups who might have been more separate before the pandemic who then came together. They always had an overlap, but this overlap got bigger.”

Plotting to overthrow the German government

Details of the far-right plot as they emerged painted a picture of a group that, while small, had created concrete plans to storm the German parliament and use violence to achieve its aims. Using various conspiracy narratives to justify their plans, group members saw their preparations — to storm the German parliament with weapons and even install their own government ministers — as an attempt to combat a supposed “deep state.”

The ringleader of the group, which the government described as a terrorist organization, was Prince Heinrich XIII Reuss, a 71-year-old member of a former aristocratic family with known ties to the far- and extreme-right, including the Reichsbürger movement.

Reuss had assembled a disparate band of supporters and members in the group, including several former members of the German special forces, a Russian citizen, and a former member of parliament from the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

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More than 3,000 police officers searched more than 130 locations across 11 of Germany’s 16 states, as well as individual locations in Austria and Italy. In addition to the 25 people detained — 22 of whom were believed to be members of this terrorist organization and three believed to be supporters — investigators are looking into additional people on “initial suspicion” of involvement in the organization, bringing the total number of those potentially involved to 54.

Authorities found dozens of weapons in their raids, including guns. A group of former soldiers within this plot was allegedly trying to recruit members among Germany’s police and military; they planned to organize 286 separate “homeland security companies” across the country.

As investigators dug deeper, they found the group may have been nearly twice as big as originally believed: Among the documents they found were more than 120 nondisclosure agreements leaders had asked potential members to sign before joining.

An “umbrella” ideology

Before the pandemic, a range of conspiracy myths existed in Germany, but they remained relatively disparate. The Reichsbürger have existed in some form since the 1980s; they reject the modern German state and believe the German Reich still exists. Reichsbürger supporters have been behind a number of violent acts over the years, including the death of a police officer in 2016. Still, they remained spread out across the country and relatively isolated from other movements with similar or overlapping beliefs.

Experts following the spread of conspiracy narratives in Germany say QAnon has been present in the German conspiracy scene since its inception in the U.S. in 2017, but remained relatively fringe in those early years.

It wasn’t until the Querdenken (“lateral thinkers”) protests, a series of loosely organized demonstrations in major cities across Germany after the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, that these movements began to share the same space — literally, at protests, and digitally, in various groups on Telegram and other social media platforms. The protests, which authorities warned had begun to radicalize by later in 2020, led to a group of Reichsbürger supporters (unsuccessfully) attempting to storm the German parliament in August 2020.

QAnon, experts told Grid, began to gain traction after the protests began due to a range of factors. First, there was the sheer fact that QAnon and Querdenken shared the same first letter: The double meaning of “Q” helped raise awareness about the conspiracy ideology among those attending the protests. What’s more, many QAnon messages from the U.S. were translated directly into German, helping them cross linguistic boundaries and find a broader audience here.

“Some of the contents of it were copy-pasted and translated for a German context,” Jakob Guhl, a researcher at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue who focuses on conspiracy theories and the far right online, told Grid. “Same symbol, the same content, but call it ‘der Sturm’ instead of ‘the storm’ — and there you go.”

Top figures in the Querdenken movement began to nod to QAnon at protests and demonstrations. Oliver Janich, a far-right YouTuber, spoke openly about QAnon in his videos and speeches; Xavier Naidoo, a well-known German pop singer, also spread QAnon materials (although he has since recanted his views).

Guhl likened the protests not to a melting pot, but to vegetable soup: “Things retain their own flavor, but they take on a bit of the flavor of the others,” he said. “It’s not that they’re all now starting to believe the same thing — it’s more that they’re so close to each other in terms of demonstrations and also on Telegram and these networks.”


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That said, he added that there’s a reason QAnon and the Reichsbürger beliefs fit so nicely together: Both are deeply skeptical of the state and elites and see (or want to create) some sort of reckoning by which “the people” take back power.

“QAnon and Reichsbürger are, in a way, perfectly compatible with each other,” Guhl said.

Ties to the far-right AfD party

Over the course of the pandemic, leaders of the far-right AfD party — which currently has 78 members in the German parliament and won 10.3 percent of the vote in last year’s federal election — have increasingly embraced the Querdenken protests, putting them side by side with adherents of QAnon, the Reichsbürger movement and others. That, along with a former AfD MP’s involvement in the recently uncovered terrorist group, has put party leaders under pressure to answer questions about how much of these conspiracy myths have permeated their own ranks.

AfD leaders have dismissed any connection between themselves and the Reichsbürger movement, even saying this week that the focus on possible ties between the two is just other political parties’ way of trying to discredit them. Quipping about the older age of some of the group’s ringleaders, AfD co-leader Alice Weidel dismissed it as a “walker coup.”

But even if party leaders themselves are not directly tied to the Reichsbürger and other conspiracy movements, research shows their voters are on board with many of their core beliefs. A report from Lamberty’s CeMAS found that 44 percent of AfD supporters agree at least somewhat with basic tenets of QAnon, such as the belief that the government and media are run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles or that true patriots may need to use violence to save the country.

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The AfD is “the closest thing Querdenken has to a parliamentary arm,” Guhl said. “They’re kind of the bridge between the mainstream and these movements.”

How serious was the threat?

Since news of the far-right plot first broke this month, German officials have suggested potential measures to combat far- and extreme-right terror in the future, including potentially tightening Germany’s already strict gun laws. Those efforts, and the trickle of new information about the raids that’s come out in the weeks since, raise the question of how seriously to take the members of this terror group.

Leaders of the terror group reportedly believed there was widespread, latent support for their views in the German public. They thought that once they started their takeover of the parliament and other levers of German power, regular Germans would rise up and join them.

“That wouldn’t have happened,” Lamberty said. Still, she added, “these attempts show us that there are right-wing extremist networks who are not afraid to use weapons, who have access to weapons.”

And even if it’s unlikely that this particular plot would have succeeded, it represents a growing radicalization and merging of conspiracy-minded individuals and groups across Germany — a trend that will likely continue going forward. And after all, Reichsbürger supporters attempted to storm the German parliament once; many of these individuals have been radicalizing further for years now.

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“It depends a bit on what people expect the threat to be: If you think it’s a military coup, the threat is probably low,” Guhl told Grid. That said, “you had someone with access to the Bundestag; you had people with military training, and dozens of them; you have an arms dealer … and that’s, I think, enough for me to be slightly concerned.”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for editing this article.



  • Emily Schultheis
    Emily Schultheis

    Freelance Reporter

    Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist in Berlin, where she writes about politics, the far right and threats to democracy.